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College of Letters & Science

Undergraduate Study in Letters & Science

The Wisconsin Experience: Essential Learning in Letters & Science
Foundations: Tools of Learning
Breadth: Ways of Knowing
Depth: Practice and Understanding (Major)
Letters & Science Degrees

The College of Letters & Science (L&S) provides a broad and deep array of learning opportunities for undergraduate students. L&S courses not only provide students with basic tools for learning, but also help students acquire a thorough understanding of the many ways in which artists, scholars, scientists, and professionals create, understand, interpret, investigate, and communicate about the diverse and complex world around us. Whether in the classroom or in the laboratory, on the Web or in the workplace, educational mission of L&S is to help students to actively develop their own sense of how they might best understand the world.

Understanding the world, communicating that understanding to others, and taking action based on what one knows, takes many forms. What we call the liberal arts and sciences includes a wide range of academic pursuits: creative production and performance in the printed and visual arts; the analysis of global history, foreign languages and world literatures; scientific inquiry into the physical and natural world; qualitative and quantitative investigation into political, economic, and social processes; and many, many more. L&S classes and instructors emphasize critical thinking, analytical investigation, and effective communication. The learning experiences that L&S offers are invaluable for students in both their professional careers and their productive lives within the community—helping students develop flexible and transferable skills, both for "making a living" and "making a life."

The Wisconsin Experience: Essential Learning in Letters & Science

The three elements of learning described below—tools, breadth, and depth—work together to create a broad and rich education in the liberal arts and sciences, and promote attainment of core areas of essential learning: knowledge of human cultures and the natural and physical world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. These and countless other experiences comprise the Letters and Science approach to helping students obtain a distinctive Wisconsin Experience.

Foundations: Tools for Learning

For all UW–Madison undergraduates, these learning experiences begin with students satisfying the university's General Education Requirements—usually by taking courses taught within the College of Letters & Science. These common foundations cover key topics which are necessary for any undergraduate major and any prospective career: oral and written communication; mathematical and logical reasoning; and the diversity of cultures within global society.

In addition to these university-wide requirements, all L&S students must attain knowledge of a foreign language, in work that combines training in both communication and culture, so students may better understand and participate in the global community of the twenty-first century. Together, these "tools for learning" may be acquired through many different courses taught by many different departments. The key is that they are never taught in isolation, but always considered together with broad exposure to various "ways of knowing" from the arts and humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. (For more on the General Education Requirements, see Mission and Purpose of the UW–Madison General Education Requirements; for more on the L&S requirements, see Letters & Science Degrees.)

Breadth: Ways of Knowing

At the heart of any degree in the liberal arts and sciences is an active understanding of the variety and breadth of the many scholarly approaches to knowing the world. Every student in the College of Letters and Science experiences significant exposure to three principal fields of knowledge: the arts and humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. These broad fields of knowledge are not the same as the areas of depth that we call "majors." In fact, any particular major—or even a particular course within a major—might well involve more than one of these fields of knowledge. (For example, imagine a seminar on "people and the environment" that combines historical background, research on social patterns of energy use, and scientific understandings of climate.) Working together, each of these three fields of knowledge represents a particular "way of knowing" about the world around us.

Courses in the arts and humanities involve knowing the world through the production and analysis of artistic, literary, and scholarly work. Some courses examine the fine and performing arts, or literature, presenting students with opportunities to interpret and think critically about these creative expressions of the human condition. Other courses help students to understand and compare religious and philosophical conceptions of humankind. Still other courses take on historical subjects, focusing on moments of change and periods of continuity for the peoples and regions of the world. These courses all encourage students to analyze the range of creative and cultural artifacts, expressions, and ideas of human existence—history, literature, art, culture, folklore—and to use that information to better understand humanity and to cultivate civic and social responsibility.

Courses in the social sciences involve knowing the world through the systematic study of human society, interactions, and institutions. The social sciences explore these issues from a wide range of perspectives and research techniques, both quantitative and qualitative. Through these courses students learn how to formulate research questions and determine what techniques are best used to answer those questions—for example, exploring ideas and developing theories, conducting surveys and building models, or observing and participating in social life itself. Developing such analytical skills assists students as they approach complex problems and seek to solve them in both the workplace and the community.

Courses in the natural sciences involve knowing the world through scientific inquiry—assembling objective information that can be used to explain observed natural phenomena in a way that is thorough and verifiable. The natural sciences are often divided into the physical sciences (dealing with matter and energy, or the study of the earth, atmosphere, and oceans) and the biological sciences (dealing with life and living systems, like plants, animals, and environments). These courses often contain laboratory components that allow students to gain firsthand experience in scientific research methods. By completing this requirement, science and non-science majors alike will gain an appreciation for science as a way of systematically looking at the natural world, understanding how this process can be used to inform decision-making in a wide range of political, economic, and social contexts.

Together, these broad "ways of knowing" give students a complementary set of tools for seeing, imagining, and asking questions about the world—tools that enhance creative problem solving no matter what the field. And, because twenty-first-century knowledge is not neatly compartmentalized, it is worth noting that these areas of study intersect and overlap; courses in some areas draw upon strategies used in the others. Experiences in "breadth" courses can be life-changing: we frequently hear that a course taken to fulfill a breadth requirement introduced someone to a subject that became a new major, a new way of looking at a current major, or a lifelong interest.

For more on the breadth designation for courses, see the section on breadth in the L&S section of this catalog.

Depth: Practice and Understanding (Major)

The process of declaring and completing a major—often, but not always, attached to a particular university department—provides students with an opportunity to concentrate on an in-depth investigation of at least one subject or issue, putting their tools for learning and ways of knowing to focused use. This intensive understanding of one topic helps students to appreciate the potential depth of the others. A student's work in the major reflects a continuing progression of skills, knowledge, and values, where advanced learning opportunities in upper-level coursework grow from and expand upon earlier experiences, helping students build additional depth in writing, speaking, information literacy, and critical thinking skills from the perspective of a particular discipline. In senior capstone or independent research projects, students are frequently asked to synthesize what they have learned and apply it in a variety of new situations. By the conclusion of their studies, students in the major are better able to understand themselves and their society, to develop their intellectual powers outside of a University setting, and to make productive contributions to the world around them. (See list of L&S majors.)

Letters & Science Degrees

The College of Letters & Science offers two basic degrees for students in the General Course and five other degrees for students in special programs. Students in the General Course, regardless of major, may earn either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree. The special degrees are: Bachelor of Science–Applied Mathematics, Engineering, and Physics (AMEP); Bachelor of Arts–Journalism or Bachelor of Science–Journalism; Bachelor of Music; and Bachelor of Social Work. (For details, see sections for AMEP, Journalism, Music, and Social Work in the L&S section of this catalog.) Students who have multiple majors in L&S earn only one undergraduate degree. 

Honors degrees may be earned in all of the above upon completion of the L&S Honors Program. See L&S Honors Program for more information. Majors completed in the General Course and for the Bachelor of Music degree will be posted on the transcript.